Public history centre hopes to get the records straight

Digital archives must balance outreach, financial viability and scholarship, Matthew Reisz hears

July 7, 2011

Researchers at a new centre devoted to public history have warned that spending cuts and ill-conceived digitisation programmes pose a major threat to the archives essential to much academic work.

Kingston University's Centre for the Historical Record was launched with the aim of promoting "collaborative research, knowledge exchange and discussion between historians, archivists, curators, heritage providers and the public".

A conference held to mark the opening was devoted to the challenges and opportunities of preserving and presenting public history in the 21st century.

Nicola Phillips, a lecturer in history who co-founded the centre, said that libraries, archives and heritage organisations that faced budget cuts were often tempted to allow commercial companies to "snap up" the rights to archive data.

Although these businesses make the material available to anyone who is interested, it is often at a considerable price and in a form "more geared to people looking to investigate their family trees rather than academics looking at more in-depth trends such as occupations or migration".

The effect, Dr Phillips said, is to "restrict their full education and research potential", while any royalties to the archives tend to dry up quickly.

Digitisation, meanwhile, has often been welcomed without much debate because it allows anyone to access material whenever and wherever they want.

Dr Phillips agreed that digitisation was "a good thing if it is done well".

But, quite apart from questions about the price, quality and searchability of digitised material, "it means that people don't need to go to archives, whose funding often depends on footfall".

As a result, "smaller archives are worried about how much they should digitise if they want to retain visitors and the grants that follow," she said, adding that this was hardly a sensible basis on which to make decisions.

It was perfectly possible, in Dr Phillips' view, for digital archives to serve the needs of many different groups of users.

She cited the case of Old Bailey Online, which makes available the complete court proceedings from 1674 to 1913, as historians require, but with tools and contextual information to help the less experienced researchers.

Often, however, "there is a clash of interests on digitisation projects, with archivists creating catalogues with either academics or the public in mind, rather than both," Dr Phillips said.

The key challenge, she continued, was to nurture the increased public interest in history while maintaining access to the material academics require for primary research.

Archiving also raises issues about documents such as mental health records, where the interests of academics need to be reconciled with privacy considerations.

"There is a welcome drive for a broadening of the impact of academic research, for 'public history' to involve communities and individuals," Dr Phillips said.

"At the new centre, we want to break down barriers, bring academics, archivists and the public together, and create a forum where these issues can be debated."

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